NOTE: This is published somewhat “prematurely.” By that I mean that the content is complete–all the text and images I want to include are included. However, there are some research links that are inevitably left out, accidentally (see bottom of the article for those). I also have yet to complete the GPS map so you can go recreate my route from Slater Mill down to Summit Village. This project keeps getting bigger, so I’ve gotta prioritize.
That said, I hope you enjoy.
This article is more or less the written account of my documentary film entitled Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. So if you’ve seen that and aren’t much of a reader, there’s not a whole lot of new information here.
However, there is a bit more discussion about things that would have been rambling in the film. There are also images that you can look at at your own pace, rather than how I decided you get to see them in the film. All of my research references will be provided through links at the bottom of this article.
I’ll also have a link to a GPS file and map. So you could recreate my film in it’s entirety simply from watching it and reading this article/inadvertent how-to guide. Then you can backdate your post, and sue me for stealing it from you.
Joke would be on you, though. I’m broke.
Lastly, it’s also another format. Some people like video. Some people like audio. Some people like reading. I want everyone to learn all the things they want to learn. So here I am, and here you are. Ask me the questions. Tell me the things you think are inaccurate. Tell me the awesome stuff that I didn’t include or apparently don’t know about.
That’s the fun thing about this kind of research. It’s like an iceberg.
Anyway, here we go:
It’s fair to say that Rhode Island grew up around the Industrial Revolution. It started right in Pawtucket, after all. I know, I know–Pawtucket was part of Massachusetts back then. But we’re not going to talk about that. Massachusetts doesn’t get Pawtucket any more than they get Babe Ruth. You traded them, and here we are with the merry fallout and consequences.
Rhode Island is (somewhat surprisingly) home to a lot of firsts in American history. From the first anti-slavery laws which in 1652 prohibited any forced or voluntary servitude in excess of 10 years or an individual’s 24th birthday (whichever was greater). This applied to both black and white people alike, and in 1679 it was extended to also include Native Americans.
Of course, the main caveat here is that nobody paid much attention to it and slavery continued on for a couple centuries after that first law was enacted. But think about it–It’s 17th century New England. In Massachusetts they’re roasting people alive because preteen children are making loose and unsubstantiated accusations.
But lil’ Rhody? Well, that place was founded on religious freedoms that would go on to influence the separation of church and state (also known as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution) and during the aforementioned human barbecues, the colonists in Rhode Island were already sewing the seeds of abolition.
In the period leading up to the American Revolution, Rhode Island was instrumental in reigniting tensions between the colonists and Great Britain with an event called the Gaspee Affair, which saw the attack and destruction of a British customs ship by colonists in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island was also the first to declare independence from Great Britain (pretty wild, huh?). Two months before the rest of the colonies, on May 4, 1776, Rhode Island put forth the Act of Renunciation, which read as follows:
WHEREAS in all states, existing by compact, protection and allegiance are reciprocal, the latter being only due in consequence of the former: And whereas George the Third, King of Great Britain, forgetting his dignity, regardless of the compact most solemnly entered into, ratified and confirmed, to the inhabitants of this Colony, by his illustrious ancestors, and till of late fully recognized by him—and entirely departing from the duties and character of a good King, instead of protecting, is endeavoring to destroy the good people of this Colony, and of all the United Colonies, by sending fleets and armies to America, to confiscate our property, and spread fire, sword and desolation, throughout our country, in order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable tyranny, whereby we are obliged by necessity, and it becomes our highest duty, to use every means, with which God and nature have furnished us, in support of our invaluable rights and privileges; to oppose that power which is exerted only for our destruction.
BE it therefore enacted by this General Assembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that an Act entitled, “An Act for the more effectual securing to His Majesty the Allegiance of his Subjects in this his Colony and Dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” be, and the same is hereby, repealed.
AND be it further enacted by this General Assembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that in all commissions for offices, civil and military, and in all writs and processes in law, whether original, judicial or executory, civil or criminal, wherever the name and the authority of the said King is made use of, the same shall be omitted, and in the room thereof the name and authority of the Governor and Company of this Colony shall be substituted, in the following words, to wit: “The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations:” That all such commissions, writs and processes, shall be otherwise of the same form and tenure as they heretofore were: That the courts of law be no longer entitled nor considered as the King’s courts: and that no instrument in writing, of any nature or kind, whether public or private, shall in the date thereof mention the year of the said King’s reign: Provided nevertheless, that nothing in this Act contained shall render void or vitiate any commission, writ, process or instrument, heretofore made or executed, on account of the name and authority of the said King being therein inserted.
That is NO JOKE. The king has forgotten his dignity? The courts of law will not longer be considered as the king’s courts? He has entirely departed from his duties and from the character of a good king? Colonial Rhode Islanders had no time for games. This trend continued on, with Rhode Island being the last of the former colonies to ratify the United States Constitution, having held out for increased religious protections.
A few years after the American Revolution, a 21-year-old man named Samuel Slater made his way from Britain to the United States. It was illegal to bring any technological plans from Britain into the States (I think they were pretty sore with America about something at the time), in particular (or at least specific to this article) their Arkwright Mills.
But despite that, Slater was on his way here with plans to design and construct Arkwright Mills in the United States. However, he didn’t exactly bring blueprints. He had been working in the mills in Britain for 11 years already (yes, since he was 10), and had a keen understanding of the design and inner workings as well as a prodigious understanding of mathematics. As such he felt that he knew enough about what made the mills tick to just pack up and move on over to the States and sort it out when he got there.
Which is exactly what he did in 1789. Once arriving he spent some time working in the mills an wasn’t incredibly impressed. He felt that they were too far away from any major water source to be able to retrofit them into a true Arkwright system, and as such he decided to start from scratch.
Meeting with Moses Brown and his business partner William Almy, Slater pitched his idea. They were particularly intrigued because they had been trying (unsuccessfully) for some time to replicate the Arkwright mill system in the United States, but hadn’t been able to quite get it right.
With Slater’s assurances that he would be able to replicate the system successfully, Brown and Almy decided to partner with Slater, and the firm of Slater, Almy & Brown was born. Together they drew up some plans, hired local builders and artisans and in 1789/90 set out to construct what would become the first Arkwright Mill in the United States–Slater Mill.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the economy was rapidly transformed from agrarian with small-scale industry to full-fledged, mass-producing and industrialized economy. As Rhode Island continued to industrialize, it was transformed socially, economically, and even geographically. The rate of production increased so quickly that it caused the cost of production dropped precipitously. This enabled more and more people access to textile goods than before, which in turn drove up demand and opened more job opportunities for people, which quickly created a positive feedback loop of supply, demand, and access.
As a result, the quality of life for people of every class was improved dramatically. But it wasn’t just the mills. The mills were constructed, but around them were constructed cottages to house the employees. Artisans and merchants like blacksmiths and tailors opened up shop. Schools and churches also popped up in the surrounded area, transforming it into a concentrated community economy with the mill functioning as the hub generating the initial income, and all other aspects of the economy radiating out from it. The village surrounding Slater Mill was eponymously named Slaterville, which would be the trend as industrialization continued to expand–first occurring along the major waterways in Rhode Island, notably the Blackstone River, the Woonasquatucket River, and the Pawtuxet River.
It was during the time shortly after the success in Pawtucket at Slater’s mill that this pattern began to be replicated by entrepreneurs all throughout the region. Of those entrepreneurs, the most successful were the Spragues.
William Sprague was already a wealthy industrialist who owned a small grist mill on the banks of the Pocasset river in Cranston, Rhode Island, and seeing the rapid success at Slater Mill, he decided to convert his mill into a water-powered textile mill. The Sprague Printworks, as it came to be known, began production in 1807, and was so successful that it was almost single-handedly responsible for propelling the Rhode Island textile industry from a textile-based economy into the veritable empire it would become.
With numerous mills throughout the Pawtuxet River Valley, the Spragues became incredibly wealthy, and Sprague Printworks still exists today as the Cranston Printworks, and while the Cranston, Rhode Island location doesn’t directly produce textiles, it is still in operation today, over 100 years later. The Sprague Printworks mill also went on to pioneer new techniques in textile dyeing and printing, including a technique called calico printing. It was around this success and these innovations that the industrialization developing in Rhode Island exploded into what we know today as the Industrial Revolution in America.
Successful and lucrative the textile industry may have been for the mill owners, things were a little bit different for those who worked in the mills. Having benefited from literal centuries of the labor movement in the United States, the structure of labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be barely recognizable from a modern standpoint. There was no eight-hour workday, no forty-hour work week, no overtime laws governing week limits or pay differentials.
Additionally, there were no child-labor laws and during the early part of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, pre-teen to early-teenage children made up a disproportionate percentage of the work force in the mills. That wasn’t a uniquely American development, however. Samuel Slater himself came to the United States at age 21, with eleven years of mill labor experience under his belt. Child labor was the name of the game.
For what it’s worth, Samuel Slater was considerably more progressive in his implementation of regulations regarding child labor. It’s likely that he didn’t use physical punishment on the children (as was the case in the English mills, and as Slater experienced himself), and that punishment only extended so far as wage garnishment and withholding. Not particularly nice, but also not violent abuse, either.
Women also found their way into the workplace in much greater numbers with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The mill owners were excited to hire them, as they were more disciplined than children. But as women kinda-sorta weren’t exactly considered full-fledged people at the turn of the 19th (or 20th…) century, they were paid far less than their male counterparts–often times earning less than half of what men were paid for the same output.
It was very much a paternalistic system of labor with the mill owners and superintendents calling all the shots. They could increase the work day without offering any more compensation. It was also common practice to increase the duration of the work week or scale back wages in response to supply and demand. It was more or less what they said, went, and what was for the good of the mill was also for the good of the worker, and that when the mill was prosperous, the worker was prosperous. And honestly, that was pretty well accepted across the board.
Now, that’s not the same as saying that everything was hunky-dory, though. Strikes and unionization, at least on a small scale, is as old as the Industrial Revolution itself. But typically unions formed in response to a particular issue and subsequently disbanded upon resolution. Workers often felt mistreated or taken advantage of, and that was clearly often the case. But given the amount of people whose lives were transformed in such a short amount of time, for the most part it was seen as a very effective, very beneficial system…and also kind of just the way things were.
And within the first half of the 19th century, railroads had already begun being constructed to connect the mills. Thus for the first time, mass transportation of raw materials, finished goods, and passengers were facilitated between the mills and villages in Rhode Island, eventually into New York, and by the 1860s far beyond.
So think about that. The Industrial Revolution started happening, and within the first half of the 19th century, the railroads already began popping up and linking things together. That’s pretty incredible. Rhode Island was founded in the 1630s. The Industrial Revolution kicked off in the 1790s. That’s almost 160 years of an economy that wasn’t stagnant…but it definitely wasn’t dynamic.
Then in the 1790s Slater Mill fires up for the first time, and within 50 years–about 30% of the time that Rhode Island had even EXISTED prior, you have a wholesale conversion from an agrarian economy to a full-fledged, mass-producing, fully industrialized economy with railroads linking the major points of production.
Can you imagine being alive to see that transition? My grandma was born in 1922. She saw the popularization of the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the television, and now computers and cellphones. She’s old enough to know people who were born slaves in the United States. I’m not convinced even her lifetime is on the same scale, because the changes she’s seen happened in roughly TWICE the amount of time as the conversion to industrialization.
In 1851, Robert Knight founded the B.B. & R. Knight Company, which was based in the Pontiac Mills in Warwick, Rhode Island. B.B. & R. Knight was a textile manufacturer, and their claim to fame was manufacturing cloth and clothing under the Fruit of the Loom Label.
Now. Rhode Island is a funny place. It’s one of the original 13 colonies, and we’ve already established that it’s responsible for being the first to do some of the things that we (Americans) take for granted. But somehow, it seems like it’s pretty under the radar. The number of American adults I have met in my life who do not know that Rhode Island is a thing is a non-zero number. I’d say it’s probably four or five. That’s impressive.
But I can virtually guarantee that even those sheltered individuals have heard of Fruit of the Loom. It’s kind of a thing. And honestly, I didn’t even know it was originally a Rhode Island brand until I started this project. But I’ve known about Rhode Island for a while now.
Ten years later, in 1861, a wee conflict that we now know as the American Civil War broke out. Knight, as well as other textile manufacturers in Rhode Island, were responsible for the production of Union Army uniforms during the war. In addition, Knight (and the others) also manufactured the packs and bags, tents, blankets, and other textile goods that were necessary to the Union war effort.
But! By now, Rhode Island wasn’t only textiles. The textiles were produced in the mills, and converted into the uniforms on sewing machines made in Rhode Island at Brown and Sharpe. Providence Tool Company manufactured sabers and bayonets–also in Rhode Island.
Builders Iron Foundry manufactured canons for Union warships. Providence Steam Engine Company built two engines that were used in Union war sloops. The Burnside Rifle Company made rifle parts. And companies like Congdon and Carpenter made the miscellaneous iron hardware like bars, rods, hoops, and horseshoes that kind of don’t exactly spring to mind when you think about warfare in the mid 19th century but were nevertheless critically important.
With all of this production power in such a small location, Rhode Island was really a one-stop shop for equipping the Union Army. And given the rotating cast of characters at the helm of the Union Army–none of whom seemed to match the adversary the Union was up against in Robert E. Lee–having such a concentrated resource of not only troops, but also all of the equipment that was needed, all of which was located immediately along a major rail line was indispensable to the Union war effort. All of this means that Rhode Island played an understated but very much critical role in the Union’s success during the American Civil War.
After the American Civil war, the country went through a period of reunification and healing. This period is referred to as the Reconstruction Era, and it refers to the literal rebuilding of the south and the reunification of the country. Socially, there was still a long way to go, as the emancipation provided little in the way of social mobility for the newly-free black people, who found themselves part of a nation that did not have a social structure to accommodate them.
Specifically they found themselves competing with poor whites for low-paying jobs. These poor whites often came quickly to resent freed blacks, as they were accustomed to much poorer treatment with no pay whatsoever. The southern economy lost its production backbone, and the lower working class white people–both northern and southern–came to resent the freed slaves because they felt displaced by the one socioeconomic group that had historically been lower on the economic ladder than they were.
This wasn’t the only impact of the end of slavery that was felt by the economy in the north. Slavery is thought of as a solely, or at least primarily, southern institution. In the north we like to think of ourselves as morally and ethically divorced from the disgusting practice of slavery. It was the south’s thing, right? We freed the slaves, we ended the institution.
Well, not exactly. The emancipation gave enslaved people the right to fight for their own freedom. It pulled the rug out from under the south’s momentum, and was at least as much a strategic maneuver as it was a moral…and likely more so ,seeing as it did little beyond that.
But even economically, the northern economy was greatly dependent on slavery. Specific to Rhode Island, there was a product called “Negro Cloth,” or “Kentucky Jeans.” It was a low-cost, durable, cotton twill fabric that was produced in the Rhode Island textile mills. Considered a Rhode Island specialty, it was produced in large quantities and shipped to the southern plantations, where it was used to clothe the slaves. In exchange, plantation owners shipped raw cotton to the mills, which was then spun into thread and converted into textiles.
No small part of Rhode Island’s economy, Negro Cloth accounted for some 70% of the state’s TOTAL textile production. Bear in mind that we’re talking about the largest textile economy in the world at the time. 70% is an enormous chunk of the economy overall that was directly dependent upon the labor of enslaved black people for its continued success.
Immediately following the American Civil War, production of Negro Cloth dropped to around 15%, and shortly thereafter stopped altogether (without slaves, you don’t really need to buy clothing for slaves…)
And it goes without saying that if you don’t need to produce Negro Cloth because there are no more slaves, that you no longer have an infinite supply of free labor that was used to produce it. As a result, from the period between 1860-1864 there was an increase in the price of cotton from $0.10/pound, to $1.89/pound. That’s a huge jump in an incredibly short amount of time.
Additionally, the south was now in need of an economy that was no longer dependent on slavery. Textile mills started spreading quickly into the southern states as a result, and with them came the railroads.
This was further compounded by the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. This quickly began to replace whale oil as a primary fuel source, displacing whaling as a major component of the economy in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The oil fields in Pennsylvania could out produce whaling as a fuel source, producing around 3,000 barrels of petroleum daily, whereas whaling could produce maybe 1,000 barrels of whale oil in a month.
Whaling was dangerous and unpredictable. Voyages were getting longer, with the average taking 6 months and the longest spanning eleven YEARS. Whale populations were depleted, and petroleum was simply a more viable resource.
Because of all this, New Bedford, which at the time included Fairhaven and Acushnet, began moving toward a textile economy.
Rhode Island had a lot more competition, and a lot more overhead.
To make matters even worse, in the years leading up to the Civil War, there was a good amount of speculative investment in railroad expansion. However, the development of the areas surrounding the railroads didn’t really keep pace and the profits expected didn’t really turn up. So the railroad industry was kind of floundering, with rail workers striking.
And lastly, over in Europe there was a demonetization of silver, which was partly responsible for the destabilization of the European economy. All of these factors (and plenty more, but I’m trying to avoid writing a textbook) conspired to cause what we now call the Panic of 1873. We used to call it the Great Depression, but then the Great Depression happened and that was way worse so now it’s the Panic of 1873. Still not a fun time to have economic woes, though.
During the Panic of 1873, the Spragues were really kind of spent. They were economically overextended and financially exhausted, and they began selling out. It was then that the B. B. & R. Knight Company started expanding. Having done well through the Civil War, they bought up many of the mills previously owned by the Spragues.
With mills all throughout the area, and all throughout New England, Knight outpaced even the expansion of the Spragues. It was said at the time that Knight owned an unbroken row of mills along the Pawtuxet River that spanned more than 4 1/2 miles.
In 21st century terms, that doesn’t sound like much. It’s a few minutes in a car. But in the 19th century, people weren’t moving along as fast. The main transit artery was the railroad, and along it you’d pass all of the mills and housing and villages. For 4 1/2 miles, everything you passed was either owned by, or prospering because of the B. B. & R. Knight Company.
And what was once the Hartford Providence Fishkill Railroad is now the Washington Secondary Bike Path. Many of the mills and their office buildings are still there. You see signs for the different villages and pass the housing that was originally constructed for the mill workers.
As you head further south it becomes less and less developed, but traveling on bike through the area, you really start to get a feel for what it must have been like. When you’re traveling at a 19th century pace, and everything around you, from mill to church to store to school, is dependent upon one company for economic stability, 4 1/2 miles is suddenly quite enormous. And this was just a small area of the footprint of the Knight Company–they operated all throughout New England.
Unsurprisingly, from the period of about 1880 through the turn of the 20th century, Knight was the biggest name in the textile industry. But come the start of the 20th century, with the southern textile mills steadily expanding and the European economy beginning to recovery and revitalize, you start to see a gradual slowing of the momentum, which would never be recovered.
Particularly in 1918, with the end of World War I, things had slowed down so much that as the rest of the country was entering the Roaring 20’s in the wake of their own industrialization, Rhode Island’s economy was grinding to a halt, and already beginning to in some ways see the onset of the Great Depression. In 1920, B. B. & R. Knight made a shocking announcement in response, when they announced that they would be selling out to a firm called Consolidated Textile.
By the time Consolidated Textile had begun taking over possession and operations of the (now formerly) B. B. & R. Knight Company mills, it was doing so in the face of an already receding economy. Keeping with the status quo of the time, in looking at dwindling profits, they did what any self-respecting mill owner would do, and they cut wages by 22%.
This sounds unfathomable by 21st century standards, but it really was just sort of the way things went back then. When things got tight, everyone took the hit. It didn’t matter that the firm itself was in a better position to take the hit than were the workers, but it was the precedent for quite some time. It wasn’t that the workers were happy about it, but they understood that in lean times, the loss would be felt as a team. It was kind of feast or famine, and given the circumstances, the cuts were acceptable.
All that started to change about a year later in January, 1922, when it was announced that there would not only be another round of pay cuts–this time an additional 20%– but that Consolidated Textile would also be ending the policy of providing company housing for employees and that they would be starting to sell off the cottages.
So. This is a recession. For the better part of a year you’re living with a 22% reduction in wages despite working 54 hour weeks. And now it turns out that that pay cut is being increased to 40%, AND your boss is selling your house. This was the last straw for many of the workers, and workers first in Riverpoint, at the Royal Mills, the Valley Queen Mills, and the Cotton Shed, walked away from their equipment and began to strike.
They immediately marched to the Pontiac Mill, where they were met by the local police force. The police were able to stop them from entering the yard of the mill, but it’s not like they didn’t make their point. When there’s been grumbling of discontent and mounting tension, and then several hundred angry workers show up at your workplace, you get the hint. The workers at the Pontiac Mill followed suit and joined in on the strike.
From there, workers headed over to the Natick Mill, which at the time was one of the largest mill complexes in the world. It was there that the strikes turned violent and devolved into rioting. Three police departments were called–Warwick, West Warwick, and Coventry to try and break the strike and quell the rioting. One worker wound up being arrested, and the riots continued until the worker was released. The march on Natick was successful in that the mill did join in on the strike, but the workers were also turned away before more damage was done.
As the strike started to spread throughout the Pawtuxet River Valley, workers began to organize what were called Flying Squadrons. Flying Squadrons were groups of mill workers who would go from mill to mill to try and explain the reasons behind and goals of the strike, and try to encourage workers at other mills to join them.
Around the same time, the mills issued a statement saying that this is just how things have always been. It was this way for 40 years under B. B. & R. Knight, and then for decades under the Spragues, and honestly from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. They argued it was no different. But to the workers, it was. It was a major recession, wages had been cut 40%, hours were increased, and their housing was being sold off. This was far beyond anything they had had to whether before as far as they were concerned.
And the strikes spread. Throughout the mills all the way down the river to the southernmost border with Connecticut, and into the mills along the Blackstone River.
For context and scale, two of the mills that went on strike in the same day were Phenix and Arkwright. This totaled more than 4,000 workers in a single day.
I’ve mentioned the Cotton Shed, Royal, Valley Queen, Phenix, Pontitac, and Arkwright Mills. But there were so many more. The Centerville, Quidnick, Arctic, Anthony, Lippit, Hope, Crompton, Harriss. Mills in Clyde and Apponaug joined in as well.
On the Blackstone you had the Bourne Mill, the Social Mill, Hamlet, Globe, Jenks, Ashton, Valley Falls–even Slater Mill, the mill where it all started.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. But in the scheme of things, it’s only a handful. This was from the Connecticut border on the southern end, all the way up the Pawtuxet river, all the way up the Woonasquatucket, all the way up the Blackstone. The strike crossed into Massachusetts, making its way all the way to Lowell. That’s pretty much the entirety of Rhode Island as well as about 3/4 of Massachusetts. And then you add in the fact that the mills were the main economic hubs of a given region.
Now, the economy had long since diversified from being strictly textile, but the textile mills were still very much its backbone. And at the time, the economy was already receding. People were already starved for money, having lived out their savings, their wages were cut down to 60%, there were no extra jobs and when working 54 hours a week, there wasn’t exactly time to work one if there were any available.
Then you pull the textile mills out of the equation altogether? The economy ground to a halt rapidly, and it reverberated throughout the surrounding area–not just along the rivers and throughout the villages–all the way across Rhode Island and through most of Massachusetts.
Already by February, the mill owners were pressing Republican Governor Emery San Souci to call in the National Guard to help quell the strikes. San Souci played the typical politician card, saying he didn’t want to get involved and that he’d prefer the two sides to come to an amicable solution without his intervention.
But…he caved. By the end of February he wound up calling in the National Guard, and 150 National Guardsmen were stationed at the Natick Mill, and believe it or not, they actually mounted a machine gun turret on the roof. This is 20th century Rhode Island, and there’s a machine gun mounted to the roof of a textile mill to prevent violence and rioting.
Anyway. In his initial refusal to call out the National Guard, San Souci effectively alienated his support among the mill owners. By changing his mind, he effectively alienated his support among the mill workers.
He didn’t end the strikes by any stretch of the imagination. But he did virtually guarantee that he wouldn’t be reelected.
But the strikes went on and on and on. Clashes with police and now National Guard troops continued. And the police hadn’t ever dealt with anything on this scale before. They weren’t–and couldn’t have been–trained for it. This was new territory. There were widespread reports of police brutality, and people were actually killed. This further bolstered additional support for the strikes along ethnic lines, depending on the ethnicity of the person killed.
By summer, the mills announced that there would be forced evictions of the mill workers and there families. The reason given behind the decision was that as the workers hadn’t been to work in months, and that the cottages were employee housing, they were evicting the striking workers to provide housing for people willing to work.
This tactic didn’t really work either. Especially seeing as how part of the reason for the strike in the first place was that the mill owners said they were going to sell off the housing in order to bolster profits again. Now they wanted to bring in outside workers to replace the striking workers, offering them the housing they were trying to deny their own employees, which precipitated the strikes in the first place.
In response, the workers set up guards in order to prevent the mills from operating. They would do things like attack trucks or deliveries moving between the mills, effectively sabotaging any attempts by the mill owners to get things moving again.
It wasn’t until September of 1922 that the mill owners became willing to negotiate with the striking workers. While they knew that no quick resolution was likely to be reached, this still wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts. When it comes down to it, the strike had already ridden out the brunt of the recession, with production orders starting to come back in again. At this point they knew that it in their best interest to get things moving again, and that somebody needed to compromise. It may as well be them–they could afford it and were in a good position to be the ones to open negotiations.
They agreed to reduce the work week from 54 down to 48 hours, and to reverse the wage cuts back to where they were before January, 1922–roughly half of the wage cuts.
Even though it was a selfish tactic on the part of the mill owners, it was seen as a huge victory on the part of the workers, who showed that they could band together on a broad scale and strike–paralyzing an economy across state lines. That they could march, strike, and literally die for a common cause.
It was no longer a one-way street. They had tipped the balance of power and shown that they could work as a cohesive unit on a massive scale, and could collectively bargain for their own rights as workers and and the primary means of production.
That mentality that developed really broke the paternalistic mindset that had been in place since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It was no longer the mill owners calling all the shots when it came to labor and wages. But beyond that, the mill owners kind of acted as a benevolent overlord, and in times of economic scarcity, despite wage cuts and increased hours, they would often be very charitable when it came down it it.
As that balance of power tipped, the charitable side of the relationship went by the wayside, and the workers and village residents were left to their own devices and ingenuity when times got tough. And, as we know, their resilience would very much come to be tested just a few years later with the onset of the Great Depression.
In the wake of the 1922 textile strike, the very way of life that drove the rapidly expanding economy and transformed the state (and ultimately the country) was already becoming a thing of the past. The strike was representative of the way things were going nationwide–this wasn’t something that was unique to or even that originated in Rhode Island. But Rhode Island was a very good snap shot of that trajectory. It was the early years of the labor movement, unionization on a larger scale was becoming more commonplace, and the face of labor and economics in the United States were beginning to change forever.
Also taking place at the time were the originations of the modern incarnations of both the Republican and Democratic political parties in the United States. When the Industrial Revolution first started gaining momentum, the wealthy business owners (who let’s face it, this is a time of slavery…they weren’t exactly ethnically diverse) appealed to the Federal Government using their wealth/political connections/political office to sort of intervene and make things go more smoothly for the expansion of industry. The railroad speculation I mentioned is a perfect example of it.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. No government in the world is going to pass up an opportunity to transform the quality of life of everyone in it with the kind of speed that industrialization was able to. But what I’m getting at is that Republicans at the time were very much in favor of an expanding governmental presence that could really support, facilitate, and invest in the kinds of expansion that was going on.
But as the 19th century waned on, and definitely by the turn of the 20th century, workers were no longer complacent in their improved economic status. They started to feel that they weren’t getting as much out of the bargain as they were putting into it. From that perspective grew the workers advocating more and more for their own rights within the workplace.
In response, the business owners (largely Republican) kind of just told the government to butt out. They’d been doing this a long time, they felt knew how to run things, and they definitely had the kind of finances in the bank to be able to not need the government’s investment like they used to. Why change it now? The complaints are a new thing– If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Yes, that’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s not exactly inaccurate, either. This was the beginning of the manifestation of the wealthy, white, business-owning conservative who wants a smaller government that has fewer ways of interfering with the ways they do business. And according to historical precedent, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And on the flip side, you have the mill workers. They’re feeling increasingly frustrated with the totalitarian authority that the mill owners had over their lives. In the wake of San Souci calling in the National Guard to stop them from what the felt was simply asserting their rights, they felt very disenfranchised by the Republican party. It was at this point that they started looking toward the Democratic party.
The workers were lower class, poor individuals who very often came from immigrant families and backgrounds. They were very ethnically diverse and as a result they kind of had to be fairly progressive about different outlooks and ways of life just to get through the day and coexist with one another.
That started shaping the Democratic party as we’d recognize it today– working class, progressive, ethnically diverse individuals, whose political representatives would intervene on behalf of workers, rather than calling in a military presence to stop them from organizing and demanding better treatment.
So right there and represented in that strike, you have the wealthy, conservative business owners who want a smaller government, and you also have the poor, progressive, working class citizens who want governmental protections.
On paper, those are the modern Republican and Democratic parties.
Going through the Great Depression, this really started to take shape with Franklin D. Roosevelt enacting the new deal which greatly strengthened the trade unions, and the enaction of social programs which aimed to take care of those on the lowest rung on the economic ladder.
But the textile mills were by this time already becoming part of a bygone era. By the 1940s, the railroad had gone bankrupt and fallen into disrepair. In 1941, a fire broke out at the Natick Mill, burning down a large portion of the complex.
The land on which is stood is now an auto salvage, and the man who runs it knew that there used to be a mill there. He remembered when his father bought it almost 60 years ago. At the time he was very young, and could recall playing on the land when there were still foundations of the mill, before his father had it all filled in and leveled. He had no idea about the textile strike, the riots, or that the National Guard had mounted a machine gun to the roof of the building that once stood on his land.
In 1992, a fire broke out in the western end of the Crompton Mill complex, completely obliterating that portion. The eastern end is still in good condition, though it stands empty. The National Register of Historic Places lists that this complex has one of the oldest oldest stone mill buildings in the state, and the entire eastern portion is protected for its historical value.
The western end, however, hasn’t been so lucky. The fire devastated the mill before it was studied and assessed for significance. Some of the remains are still there, although most of it was destroyed–either from the fire or due to subsequent structural instability. There have been no studies to document what’s left, or its significance.
In 2005, a fire broke out at the Phenix Mill in West Warwick. I remember this one personally because at the time I was in a band that practiced in the area. The mills were far from something significant to me at that point, but living in Rhode Island, you see them everywhere and they’re a major part of the landscape.
I showed up for practice on day and the mill had burned down. The fire was still smoldering and what was left of the mill was just a burned out hulk with the smokestack looking like it had seen better days. It was later leveled due to the structural damage.
But most of the mills are still standing. Some of them are still in manufacturing, although not continuously since their construction. The Cranston Printworks–formerly Sprague Printworks– is still in operation though. The mill has the distinction of being the only mill in continuous operation from the early years of the Industrial Revolution. You’ll remember that it was constructed by William Sprague and fired up in 1807. That’s a long run.
Unfortunately, though they’re still headquartered there, most of the production occurs off site and typically overseas. It’s a common occurrence in manufacturing-based industries as labor is consistently outsourced to countries with fewer, less stringent, or no labor laws as it helps to drive down costs to an increasingly picky consumer here in the States.
Some of the mills have built smaller units within their huge complexes that are rented out to smaller operations, manufacturing or otherwise. Some have flea markets or outlet shops. One manufactures carpeting and another works with composite fibers that go to make everything from synthetic yarns to motor vehicle airbags. Slater Mill itself is actually now a fantastic museum dedicated to the Industrial Revolution and its transformation of the country.
Most of the mills, though, are living spaces. They’ve become things like condos, apartment complexes, and even hotels that, (however I feel about high-cost rental properties moving into economically depressed areas and remaining inaccessible to the surrounding population) retain the historic qualities of the mills and tend to incorporate that history into their presentation as a business. A lot of the mills are currently being used as these living spaces and many of the vacant ones are in the process of being refurbished and re-imagined as them.
As for the railroad itself? The rail bed was paved over starting in the late 1990s. In 1997, the first portion of it was opened up as a bike path/multi-use path. It was in the Washington area, and so the path came to be called the Washington Secondary Trail. At present, it spans from almost the Coventry border with Connecticut (it’s being ever-expanded but it still has a bit to go) all the way to the Cranston border with Providence.
The entirety of the Washington Secondary Trail is a small segment of an overarching project called the East Coast Greenway, which is an interconnected network of rail trails, multi-use paths, and on-road cycling routes that will eventually span the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States–from Maine to Florida. It’s essentially going to be the cycling world’s answer to Interstate 95.
The Rhode Island portion spans 19 miles, and on it, you’ll see a lot of relics of this industrial history. At the end of the Washington Secondary Trail, there’s a small general store that was opened in the 1850s right near the rail depot in Summit, Rhode Island.
You’ll pass over the same steel trestle bridges that the trains would pass over while making their way from mill to mill. You’ll come up to intersections that used to be railroad crossings, and there you’ll see stretches of the tracks that lay parallel to where they once were. You’ll also see passenger platforms and crossover controls.
Eventually you’ll come into Riverpoint. Where the strikes began. And there you’ll see the New Haven Caboose, which is a refurbished rail car that was once in service along the Providence Hartford Fishkill line. Now it’s a small historical attraction in front of the very mills it used to service.
You’ll see the telegraph poles dotting pretty much the entire length of the bike path. And if you really keep your eyes open, you’ll occasionally see some foundations. I’m not sure exactly what they were part of, but invariably they had something to do with either the mills or the railroad.
And, of course, you’ll see the mills. Often time you’ll see the smokestack in the distance popping up through the trees. As you grow closer it’ll disappear again, and then as you come past the trees you’ll see the sprawling mill complex. It’s really cool to see and you really start to feel like you’re traveling through a museum. It’s not a museum, but it’s really not that far off.
But it isn’t just a museum of the Industrial Revolution. As you pass through Anthony Village, you’ll pass the Major General Nathanael Greene Homestead. What that is is an 18th century homestead that was built by Nathanael Greene when he was just 27 years old. It expanded to become a farm and iron works forge that encompassed more than 800 acres. At its largest, it encompassed what would become the surrounding neighborhoods, a portion of the railroad, and even a couple of the mills that would be built more almost 200 years later.
In addition to being a really cool snapshot of 18th century life in New England, the Nathanael Greene Homestead is more important than simply a quaint museum; Nathanael Greene was a Revolutionary War hero. He was considered a genius tactician and was second in command to–and good friends with–George Washington himself.
So looking at it as a museum, this bike path isn’t just a museum of industrialization–it’s a museum of the entire history of the United States as a nation. From the end of the colonial era through the American Revolution.
From the onset of the Industrial Revolution and through to secession.
The American Civil War and the Emancipation.
The turn of the 20th century and the rise of the automobile.
The first World War, with the bells of the Pontiac Mill signaling the Armistice.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement/the 19th Amendment that granted [white] women the right to vote.
Into the Great Depression and World War II.
All the way through to today. Right now. Where it serves as not only recreation and tourism, but as mass transit–for myself and countless others, some of whom are going to work at the very same mills the railroad was built to service.
So here we are, almost 200 years after the fact, and the Providence Hartford Fishkill Railroad is still serving as a major transit artery.
So as you’re traveling along. It doesn’t have to be along this path–or even in Rhode Island. Wherever you are, and whatever it is you’re up to. Stop and take a moment to learn about and appreciate the history of that place. Because it doesn’t have to be a sought after travel destination–I can guarantee you that everywhere has just as rich and complex and unique of a history as anywhere else.
All you have to do to find it, is go out and look.
This is a (probably not exhaustive) list of all of my research references. Inevitably some were probably lost along the way. I’ll continue to add them as I scrounge them up.
Click to access prov_downtown-providence-hd.pdf
Click to access covn_anthony-village_hd.pdf
Click to access cumb_ashton-hd.pdf
Click to access werk_providence-street-200_valley-queen.pdf
Click to access scit_hope-village-hd.pdf
Click to access scit_hope-village-hd.pdf
Click to access covn_main-street-618_harris-cotton-mill.pdf
Click to access covn_south-main-street_hd.pdf
Click to access werk_providence-street-125_royal-mill.pdf
Click to access warw_historic-resources-of-warwick-text.pdf
Click to access warw_forge-road-40_forge-farm.pdf
Click to access west_warwick.pdf
Click to access 2009_SumFall.pdf
6 thoughts on “Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution”
Hi I was wondering who actually constructed the Mills?
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What do you mean? Do you mean who was hired as laborers, or which firm was behind their construction? The Sprague corporation build a large amount of them throughout the first half of the 19th century, with the Knight corporation moving into many former Sprague mills and constructing many of their own. Those were the major names but there were others.
If you’re referring to the labor source, I’m not positive off the top of my head but I’m happy to do some digging and get back to you 😺
Hey this was a simply incredible read. I am doing a project on the urbanisation of providence, and this was a fantastic starting point thank you!
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I’m very glad you liked it! I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary (on YouTube). It’s more or less the same information but with a lot of visuals. What’s the project for?
The documentary is how I found this! It is on the urbanisation of providence, but I needed background knowledge of Rhode Island, as I am Irish and had very little knowledge of the state. This was an incredible starting point
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Oh brilliant! Providence is a tiny city so if you want pictures or anything let me know, it’s nothing to get anywhere in the city from where I am. Also my paternal great grandfather was from Cork and it’s been on my bucket list to visit for years! Soon as the apocalypse passes I’ll be traveling again. Thanks again for the kind words, glad you enjoyed it